Witness to the Revolution
By Meredith McGroarty
It’s understandable why, given its neighbors in North Africa, Tunisia escaped much attention until last year. Its recent history is less bloody and tumultuous than that of Algeria, its leaders lacked the outsized, tabloid-ready personality of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and none of its cities were enshrined in classic Hollywood films like Casablanca. In fact, with its largely secular government and a constitution that protects women’s rights and other civil liberties, Tunisia was often perceived as one of the most stable and progressive countries in the region.
So when a sudden series of popular uprisings in January 2011 made Tunisia a focus of international attention, even those with close ties to the country—like Douja Mamelouk, a UT assistant professor of French and Arabic—were shocked.
After following the revolution in real time through social media and engaging in continually evolving discussions on the country with other academics, Mamelouk—who was born and raised in Tunisia—decided to explore the situation further. She expanded her research on Tunisian women’s literature to include an examination of how, prior to the revolution, some of the most published female authors in Tunisia expressed their unhappiness with the country’s political and social systems through their novels.
“Before the revolution, writing by Tunisian women expressed a discontent with masculinity and the state of the country, which were interconnected,” Mamelouk says. “Masculinity is linked to patriarchy, which in turn is linked to dictatorship.”
Decades of Dictatorship
According to Mamelouk, Tunisia’s longstanding reputation as a progressive country is complicated by the gap between the liberal laws laid out in its constitution and the extent to which they are respected and practiced. When the country gained its independence from France in 1956, its new government, headed by Habib Bourguiba, drafted a constitution that included a variety of protections for women, including statutes giving women equal rights during divorce proceedings and a ban on polygamy.
Over the past half-century, Tunisia has developed what is arguably the best educational system in the Arab world, and women have a strong presence in the workforce at all professional levels.
In 1987 Bourguiba was ousted from his position as president. His successor, former military officer Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was widely criticized as a dictator who ignored the country’s laws and turned Tunisia into a police state where human rights were frequently disregarded.
“To Ben Ali, Tunisia existed to fulfill his personal needs and the needs of his wife and family,” Mamelouk says. She adds that during Ben Ali’s rule, corruption was rampant, and there was little, if any, objective news reporting to expose or criticize his activities.
Ben Ali’s twenty-three-year autocratic rule—which ended in 2011 when the uprisings prompted him to flee to Saudi Arabia—has spanned most of Mamelouk’s life. Born to a Tunisian father and an American mother, Mamelouk grew up in Tunisia before leaving to attend college at Willamette University in Oregon.
Tunisians might not have been happy with Ben Ali, but it was impossible to imagine the country without him, she says. “To me, the revolution was beyond a surprise—it was a huge shock. When you grow up in a dictatorship, you never think that the country could exist without this leader whose pictures are everywhere.”
Taking a Closer Look
Traditional media outlets in Tunisia were largely silenced during the Ben Ali era, but in the past few years, regular Tunisians have been using social media to tell their stories. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube became venues for the public to post criticisms of the political system and call for change. Social media sites also helped protesters organize demonstrations and keep up with developments during the revolution.
Online networks also helped Tunisian expatriates like Mamelouk stay informed about the developments in their home country. Before the revolution, Mamelouk did not have much of a presence on social media sites, but when unrest spread in Tunisia, she found Facebook to be a valuable resource for news and discussion.
These conversations and her personal interest in the uprisings spurred Mamelouk to expand her own research, which focuses on the themes of identity and self-expression in novels written by Tunisian women. Having received a bachelor’s degree in political science, Mamelouk drew upon that background to look at how politics also figured into women’s writing.
“Women couldn’t come out and voice their opinions,” she says. “One theme in Tunisian novels is the difference between what women say at home and what they say in public.”
Even before the revolution, female authors were expressing unhappiness with Tunisia’s political system and the expression of masculinity in its society; they wanted Tunisians to rethink their concepts of male identity, Mamelouk says. In the past, it was risky to voice criticisms of the country’s social and political structures, but the recent changes in the government have ushered in an atmosphere of freer speech. Mamelouk believes Tunisian authors will take this opportunity to address these issues more directly.
“We’re going through a period of rehashing the past and saying all the things we couldn’t say before. There will probably be a lot of discontent in the literature with the present, too, because we have a democracy now and everyone has an opinion,” Mamelouk says. “That opinion will be expressed in the literature.”Tags: Arts and Sciences • Douja Mamelouk • Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures • Political Science